HARLEY, Thomas (c.1667-1738), of Kinsham Court, Herefs.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1698 - 1715

Family and Education

b. c.1667, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Thomas Harley of Kinsham Court by Abigail, da. of Sir Richard Saltonstall of Huntwick and Woodsome, Yorks.  educ. M. Temple 1682, called 1690. unmsuc. fa. 1685.1

Offices Held

Commr. taking subscriptions to land bank 1696, S. Sea Co. 1711; jnr. sec. of Treasury 1711–June 1714; envoy to Hanover 1712, envoy extraordinary Apr.–May 1714.2

Freeman, Ludlow 1701.3


Harley entered public life under the umbrella of his uncle and cousins at Brampton Bryan. By 1694 he had joined them in the Herefordshire lieutenancy, and two years later served as a commissioner for taking subscriptions to the land bank, one of his cousin Robert’s pet projects. In 1697 he made a voyage to Spain and Portugal, which may conceivably have had some commercial purpose (another Harley cousin was an overseas trader, though mainly to the Levant) or may have been undertaken to advance ambitions for a diplomatic posting. While abroad, he spent a short time in Holland, observing the peace negotiations at Ryswick and giving it as his opinion, in letters home, that ‘either we must take what our enemies will give us or continue the war’. He had some interest of his own in Radnorshire, where his father had stood as the family candidate for the boroughs constituency in the election to the Oxford Parliament, and this was strengthened in 1696 when he successfully petitioned for a renewal of his father’s lease of crown lands in Melenydd. However, it was as Robert Harley’s nominee that he was himself returned in a contest as knight of the shire in 1698. As early as 1693 he had paid homage to Robert as ‘the sole patron of Radnorshire’, and had served his cousin as an electoral agent in the county. He was classed with the rest of his family as a supporter of the Country party in a comparative analysis of the old and new Houses of Commons in about September 1698, and was forecast as likely to oppose a standing army. To judge by his correspondence, this was an accurate representation of his sentiments on the issue. His parliamentary activity is impossible to distinguish from that of his more prominent cousins, either in the Journals or in unofficial accounts of debates. Nevertheless, his presence with leading Tory MPs such as William Bromley II, John Grobham Howe and Sir Humphrey Mackworth at a dinner at the Thatched House tavern in December 1701 is evidence that he was no obscure back-bencher. Indeed, having been blacklisted as one who had opposed the making of preparations for war in 1701, he subscribed his name, among other Members, to a Tory rejoinder. Not surprisingly, he voted on 26 Feb. 1702 in favour of the motion vindicating the proceedings of the Commons in the impeachments of the four Whig Lords.4

The loyalty Harley had hitherto displayed to his cousin, in local and national politics, was if anything reinforced after 1702. When Robert took over the secretaryship of state in 1704 it was at first rumoured that he was to bring Thomas into his office as an under-secretary, but in fact a diplomatic appointment was being considered for him. Switzerland he ‘did not care’ for, and with a keen ambition he aimed unsuccessfully at an envoyship to Hanover. At the beginning of the 1704–5 session he was forecast as a probable opponent of the Tack, while in the division on it on 28 Nov. 1704 he was variously listed as having voted against and ‘sneaked’, for which he suffered the bitter resentment of High Tory lampoonists. That his own Toryism was privately of a flexible kind had already been demonstrated by his involvement in speculation over Bank and New East India Company stock. During the winter of 1705–6 he remained faithful to the ministry: he voted for John Smith I* in the division on the Speaker, 25 Oct. 1705, and for the Court over the ‘place clause’ in the proceedings on the regency bill on 18 Feb. 1706. He was still identifiable as a Tory, however, and was listed as such twice in 1708, before and after the general election, at which he was returned unopposed for Radnorshire. Nothing is known of his immediate reaction to his cousin’s fall from power in February of that year, but a letter the following December was sharp in its criticism of the Marlboroughs (the Duchess being derided as ‘Madam Mindelheim’) and of the Whig Junto, whom he accused of prolonging the war for their own political advantage:

It is foolish to expect an end of the war . . . the party that is founded upon war, and a senseless jargon of France, Jesuits and an invisible army of 10,000 pilgrims mounted upon elephants, have not yet acquired power enough to support themselves in that most difficult and slippery state of peace.

In the 1709–10 session he voted against the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell, and, having been returned for Radnorshire once again on his cousin’s interest in 1710, was marked as a Tory in the ‘Hanover list’.5

Harley was listed among the ‘worthy patriots’ who in the 1710–11 session exposed the mismanagements of the previous ministry, and also figured among the ‘Tory patriots’ favouring peace in April 1711. His closeness to his cousin received formal expression in June 1711 when he was appointed a junior secretary of the Treasury, effectively Robert’s secretary as lord treasurer. A man of some wit, a boon companion of Thomas Mansel I* and a member of Swift’s circle, he was a natural recruit to the ‘Society of Brothers’, the ministerial dining-club founded by Henry St. John II*, but was turned out in January 1712 for ‘gross neglect and non-attendance’. Swift, who described him as ‘my very good friend’, once commented that ‘plainness of speech’ was not ‘Tom Harley’s vice’, and it may have been a talent for artful obfuscation, shared with cousin Robert, that prompted the lord treasurer (now Earl of Oxford) to select him in 1712 for a crucially important diplomatic expedition which required both cunning and tact. As envoy to the electoral court at Hanover his main task was to soothe the outraged feelings of the Elector on the proposed peace, and if possible to persuade him of the propriety of British intentions. Having been obliged to delay his departure until March 1712 because his presence in the Commons was ‘too useful’ to the ministry ‘to be spared’, he spent some time in Holland en route, attempting to explain to the Grand Pensionary, according to his instructions, what the ministers’ peace policy was, the constraints upon that policy, and why it was in the interests of the States General to comply. According to St. John, he showed the skill of an ‘excellent physician’ in administering this unwelcome ‘medicine’. He also transmitted further instructions to the British plenipotentiaries at Utrecht, to whom he was introduced as someone ‘fully in the secret’ of the leading ministers’ counsels. While in Holland he impressed those he met with his cultivated conversation. A similar social success awaited him in Hanover, where he was well received at his arrival in July, and continued to be treated with great courtesy during the two and a half months of his stay, returning laden with ‘considerable presents of gold medals and jewels’. His letters home had been sparse, however, a fact from which St. John (now Lord Bolingbroke) correctly inferred that he was making little headway over the real purpose of the embassy. Despite frequent meetings with the Elector, in which he ‘endeavoured to counterwork’ Whig ‘insinuations’, at one point stating frankly that not to ‘come into the British measures of peace’ would ‘do him an injury in the minds of the people, who were set upon peace’, he had failed to dispel the Elector’s mistrust. At his return to London in October he was rushed to a conference with Lords Oxford, Bolingbroke and Strafford, and thence to the Queen at Windsor. For all the formal expressions of royal satisfaction, it is unlikely that his report was especially welcome, and the failure of the mission may explain his inability to secure in January 1713 an Exchequer office for which he had solicited.6

Harley was listed as voting on 18 June 1713 in favour of the French commerce bill, and indeed throughout the 1713 session acted as one of Oxford’s principal lieutenants in the Commons. But the most important service he rendered his cousin in the last two years of his ministry was a second embassy to Hanover, in April and May 1714. The decision that he should be sent was taken as early as January of that year. That he did not embark for at least a month may be ascribed to political calculations: both Bolingbroke and the Hanoverian Tory leader (Sir) Thomas Hanmer II (4th Bt.*), whose support the lord treasurer was wooing, had strongly opposed the embassy, Bolingbroke reportedly insisting on its cancellation as a precondition of co-operation, Hanmer disparaging Harley’s ‘quality and merit’ in conversation with a Hanoverian agent, and expressing the wish that ‘a judgment would not be formed of the whole [Tory] party from a bad specimen’. Eventually, Oxford decided that the diplomatic and political gains would outweigh the losses: besides re-establishing the Treasurer in the favour of the heir to the throne, a demonstration of his influence at Hanover would strengthen his standing with the Queen. Harley’s original instructions were to give reassurances of the security of the succession, and that the Queen would agree to any proposal that would reinforce this security, if consistent with her safety and the laws of the realm; that the Pretender would be evicted from Lorraine; and that the arrears of the Hanoverian troops would be paid. He was even to offer a pension to the dowager Electress. As confirmation of these various promises he carried a letter from Anne herself. On the negative side, he was to intimate privately to the Elector that to send over to England any member of his family would be highly disobliging to the Queen and would meet with her stiff opposition. To forestall such an eventuality, or at least to have the credit in England for having done so, while simultaneously retaining the goodwill of the electoral house, was the chief end of Harley’s mission. As before, he broke his journey in Holland, where he was again active on the diplomatic front, and, as before, he was again received at Hanover with a great show of affection and respect. As one of the Harleys’ correspondents reported, ‘the court appear to have a very great satisfaction in having Mr Harley with them, and show a particular esteem for his person, besides the distinction of his character’. In private, however, both the Elector and the dowager Electress were wary of Harley and determined to ‘say nothing’ to him. The embassy got off on the wrong foot, for after Harley’s departure from London the question of the presence in England of a Hanoverian heir was raised by the electoral representative, Schütz, who officially requested the issue of a writ to the electoral prince to summon him to the Lords in his capacity as Duke of Cambridge. Supplementary instructions ordered Harley to inform the Elector of the Queen’s extreme displeasure, and to demand that Schütz be recalled. Immediate responses were not encouraging, the Hanoverians persisting in their view that Schütz’s request was ‘innocent’ and dwelling on the dangers to be apprehended from the Jacobites. Subsequent exchanges promised better, and Harley wrote confidently to Swift of having ‘succeeded . . . to his wishes’, and to Oxford that the Elector was ‘much more your friend’ than formerly. The Hanoverians had declared their ‘readiness to depend entirely on the Queen and to do nothing disagreeable to her’. It would seem, however, that these hopes were too sanguine, for Harley was unable to prevent the Elector from submitting a memorial reiterating various demands, not only for an invitation to a member of his family to reside in England, but also for a pension on the civil list for his mother, British titles for all the Hanoverian princes, and the removal of the Pretender from Lorraine. The decision to bring Harley back from Hanover was taken shortly afterwards, and taken by Oxford alone, without informing Bolingbroke of the reason or the precise circumstances. Back in London at the end of May, Harley was present the following month at a dinner for the Hanoverian resident, attended by a number of friends and relations of the lord treasurer, and in a division on 1 July he joined all the Harleyites in the Commons (bar his cousin Edward Harley*) in voting for the schism bill. In the Worsley list he was classed as a Tory.7

Despite the favourable impression he was supposed to have made in his embassies to Hanover, Harley suffered in the chill political climate that enveloped the Tories with the succession of George I. Defeated in Radnorshire in the 1715 general election, and removed from the commission of the peace, he endured the indignity of arrest in June 1715 and confinement for more than two months, at the behest of the committee of secrecy investigating the peace negotiations. Along with Oxford and some old associates, he was specifically excepted from the bill of indemnity in 1717. He may have visited Paris in 1717, and was certainly in France a year later. His alienation from the new regime can be measured in his correspondence: he complained in 1720 that the ‘much-boasted freedom of the press extends only to freethinkers, pantheisticons and the like, but not to memorials and authentic acts of what passes in the world in which every man’s interest is concerned’, and soon after, that if his letters were not kept short he would only be ‘expatiating on folly, knavery and the misery of innocent people; a very disagreeable subject’. Such views may account for his name being given to the Pretender as a person who believed that the country ‘cannot be proper till the right line is restored’.8

Harley did not stand for Parliament again, and ended his days a ‘cheerful’ old bachelor. He died ‘at the beginning of January’ 1738, leaving almost all his estate, in Herefordshire and Radnorshire, to Edward Harley†, later 3rd Earl of Oxford, with £3,000 in trust for Lady Kinnoull, daughter of his cousin, the 1st Earl, provided that her husband, Lord Kinnoull (George Hay, Viscount Dupplin*), ‘shall not have anything to do with the said sum’.9

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. W. R. Williams, Parlty. Hist. Wales, 174–5; A. Collins, Hist. Colls. Cavendish, Holles, Vere, Harley and Ogle Fams. 199; Fam. Min. Gent. (Harl. Soc. xxxviii), 612; HMC Portland, v. 61; iii. 385.
  • 2. Pittis, Present Parl. 350.
  • 3. Salop RO, Ludlow bor. recs. min. bk. 1690–1712 (unfol.).
  • 4. CSP Dom. 1694–5, p. 153; 1696, pp. 412, 488; HMC Portland, iii. 583–4; Add. 70018, f. 177; 70239, Thomas to Robert Harley, 1 July 1693, 17 Apr. 1697, 28 Sept. 1700; 70275, same to same, 23 Mar. 1696; 70119, same to Sir Edward Harley, 5 Jan. 1699; 70249, James Morgan* to Robert Harley, 16 July 1698; Cal. Treas. Bks. x. 1363; xi. 209–11, 234; D. R. L. Adams, ‘Parl. Rep. Rad. 1536–1832’ (Wales Univ. M.A. thesis, 1969), 196–9; NLW, ms 14362, E Sir Humphrey Mackworth’s* diary, 129; An Answer to the Black List; or, the Vine Tavern Queries (1701), 4.
  • 5. Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 426, 428; Bath mss at Longleat House, Portland pprs. Ld. Godolphin (Sidney†) to Robert Harley, ‘Monday at 7’ [c.1705]; Poems on Affairs of State ed. Ellis, vii. 61; Add. 70092, Thomas Hunt to Edward Harley, 24 Sept. 1700, n.d.; HMC Portland, iv. 516.
  • 6. Bolingbroke Corresp. i. 261; ii. 174, 178–9, 181–3, 185–90, 312, 385, 487, 490–1; Swift Stella ed. Davis, 280–1, 299, 454–5; Swift Corresp. ed. Williams, ii. 39–40, 383; Boyer, Pol. State, iii. 62, 171, 202–3, 261; HMC Portland, v. 155–6, 170, 200–1, 206, 249; Orig. Pprs. ed. Macpherson, ii. 355; Boyer, Anne Annals, xi. 263–4; Add. 40621, f. 153; 17677 GGG, f. 17.
  • 7. Orig. Pprs. ii. 421, 549, 578, 583, 603, 631; E. Gregg, Q. Anne, 375, 382–4; Folger Shakespeare Lib. Newdigate newsletter 16 Jan. 1714; Boyer, Pol. State, vii. 55, 187, 323, 415, 492, 502; A. McInnes, Robert Harley, 159; D. Szechi, Jacobitism and Tory Pol. 185; HMC Portland, v. 409, 417–19, 423, 426, 437, 441, 448–9, 466; Add. 17677 HHH, f. 192; Swift Corresp. ii. 22; Bolingbroke Corresp. iv. 513, 534–5; K. Feiling, Tory Party, 469.
  • 8. L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs, 248; HMC Portland, v. 570, 583, 607, 612; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxx. 68; xxxi. 320; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1714–19, p. 375; HMC Stuart, iv. 472, 497; vii. 300; RA, Stuart mss 52/131, ‘Mr Booth’ to James III, 17 Mar. 1721.
  • 9. HMC Portland, vi. 61; Swift Corresp. ed. Williams, v. 109; PCC 38 Brodrepp.